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Ask a Naturopathic Doctor: Sunscreen — or Not?

by Katherine Willow ND

sunscreenThe idea of applying sunscreen all the time has never made any sense to me.  Adding chemicals to our skin and then exposing ourselves to sunlight would seem to add toxicity to our bodies and prevent absorption of the vitamin D we require to prevent winter depression, heart disease, chronic fatigue and cancer.

Research has suggested that the most common chemicals in sunscreens, for example oxybenzone, create free radicals associated with aging and disrupt our endocrine system.   On top of that, skin cancer is increasing in spite of all the products used to protect ourselves from the sun.  Worse still is the effect on our oceans and reefs of all the dissolved creams from sunbathing swimmers.

My own conclusion is that products I feel comfortable with on my skin are edible, together with the mineral zinc oxide, which is one of the safest and most stable sun blocks we have.  Even the vitamin A and titanium that are added have been shown to cause problems.  When a label says “non-nano” zinc oxide (or titanium, which I don’t recommend), it means the particles are not small enough to be absorbed into the tissues below the skin.

heart_shaped_sunBe aware of the meaning of the SPF values.  At SPF 15, 93% of the sun’s burning rays are blocked; at SPF 30, it is 97% and it only goes up to 98% for SPF 50.  SPF 15 is recommended as adequate for most of the population.

However, SPF only tells us how much of the UVB is blocked, with no indication of how it affects the UVA, or aging rays.  UVB is relevant between 10 am to 4 pm, while UVA is a consideration all day.  Zinc oxide is one of the few ingredients that protects against both UV’s.

There are many natural sunscreens on the market with varying degrees of purity.  Dr Hauschka and Weleda are reputable brands.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that when muscle-testing different varieties, the chemical brands consistently tested poorly compared to the alternatives, even double-blinded!

Only use sunscreen when you really have to, ie after being out in intense sun for more than ½ hour without shelter or protective clothing.  Reapply every 1-2 hours.  I find an ordinary umbrella extraordinarily useful in blocking sun when walking around in the summer.

Gradually build up sun exposure at the beginning of the season to give your skin a chance to acclimatize.  If one listens to the body, there is usually a point when the heat is uncomfortable, time to move into the shade or don a hat and shirt.  In 20 minutes we can build up 10-20,000 IU’s vitamin D on a sun-exposed body, in even less time with light skin.

turtleConsider that our general health affects how well our skin responds to the sun.  In terms of diet, avoiding alcohol and PUFA’s in vegetable oils and taking in healthy saturated fats such as coconut oil, organic butter and grass-fed meats makes the skin more resistant to burns.  Consuming adequate veggies and fruits gives us the antioxidants which protect us from the aging effects of the sun.

Finally, you can make your own non-toxic and effective sunscreen.  There are many recipes on the internet with ingredients such as sesame oil, blocking 30% of the sun’s rays; coconut oil, which blocks 20%; aloe vera, which blocks 20% and offers deeper protection with its healing properties; and zinc oxide, which one should take great care not to inhale, as the particles will irritate the lungs.